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Stepping up from design into leadership

18 April 2019

The experience of moving up into a leadership role can be disconcerting. Architecture is a profession that requires years of training, learning skills that are then honed and developed in day-to-day practice, so the transition into a leadership position can feel jarring.

"Generally, in a working environment, we reward people for being good at what they do" points out Kirsten Scott, Senior Partner at Foster + Partners. "If they have been brilliant at design, we reward them with a promotion which makes them a leader. The transition can be difficult because on the one hand you're still designing and drawing and on the other, people are looking to you for leadership."

This is a challenging moment for a professional in any vocation. The temptation is to try to do everything. Scott found that taking on a leadership role required her to re-evaluate both how she used her time and how she related to her colleagues.

"It is an abrupt change and can be quite overwhelming," she admits. She developed a strategy for such moments. "You realise that you just have to step away, that one more hour of your time thinking strategically has so much more value than trying to do everything."

Providing herself with a little distance seemed to work.

"When people see that you are in control, that you’ve thought ahead and that you’ve got this, then they also feel more confident about what they are doing," Scott reveals.

One of Kirsten Scott’s projects for Foster + Partner’s has been the restoration of the Kulm Eispavillon in St Moritz, a structure that played host to the 1928 and 1948 Winter Olympics.

She describes the office culture at Foster + Partners as charged with an energy level notably different from anywhere else she has worked.

"It is multidisciplinary to an extent that distinguishes it from other practices," she enthuses. "We don't just have architects, we have got structural mechanical engineers, filmmakers, artists, mathematicians and even psychologists. There's a diversity of disciplines."

Being able to work with such a varied team is clearly an inspiration in itself. "When you are leading a project here, you are constantly engaging with different disciplines and different points of view." This has taught her valuable lessons in empathy.

"Everybody has something that is very important to them; a passion which won’t be the same for others," she explains. "You learn very quickly that you have to deal with lots of different disciplines and characters."

She encourages team members to be as open as possible.

"Most of my team is probably more talented and more intelligent than I am," she confesses. "Otherwise, why would we go to such lengths to find talent? So we need to embrace and facilitate their input."

Such openness and transparency is perhaps even more important when working with external stakeholders or unfamiliar teams in joint projects.

"When there are a lot of players in a large project you could end up in silos, so there are many challenges," she explains. "But it’s really about putting yourself in somebody else's shoes and gaining trust. Always be open about changing your opinion, in a way that everyone involved in a project can see."

Scott is very clear-sighted about what obstacles in a project can often amount to.

"If everybody is good at their job and everybody has integrity then why is it we ever have any conflicts?" she asks. "It's because we don't feel that somebody else is seeing it from our point of view."

There is a very simple solution. "It's about building up trust and being open to taking on board somebody else's point of view."

Happily, Scott reports that Fosters have no truck with any one-size-fits-all leadership style, to which everyone should conform. Just as Scott believes that everybody should be able to express a unique character and a point of view, she believes leaders should be able to recognise that there are different ways of leading.

"The culture should be constantly evolving. My way of leading will be different to the next person’s. I wouldn’t want people that are up and coming thinking they have to lead in my mould."

Thanks to Kirsten Scott, Senior Partner, Foster + Partners.

Text by Neal Morris. This is a Professional Feature edited by the RIBA Practice team. Send us your feedback and ideas

Kirsten Scott will be speaking about ‘Leading Teams in Practice’ at the second of this year’s Future Leaders events on 16 May 2019.

RIBA Core Curriculum Topic: Business, clients and services. 
As part of the flexible RIBA CPD programme, Professional Features count as microlearning. See further information on the updated RIBA CPD Core Curriculum and on fulfilling your CPD requirements as an RIBA Chartered Member.

Posted on 18 April 2019.

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